How to Go Places That Scare You In Your Writing

Webcomics_webcomic_scary_449578_lThe Halloween spirit is in full swing at my house and all around the city.  I love decorating for Halloween, though I don't go nearly as all out as some of the places I see which feature scarecrows and witches and ghouls rising from tombstones.  Love it all!

Halloween is supposed to be frightening, with many people (not me) watching scary movies and wandering through graveyards or impenetrable corn mazes.  But I've been thinking about scaring yourself in a different way–through your writing.

Specifically, going to the places that scare you in your writing.

This may be writing about something bad that happened to you in your past, or writing a fight scene when you have an aversion to conflict. Maybe sunshine, lollipops and rainbows scare you (okay, I couldn't resist–see below for the video of that song.) 

Whatever it is that scares you, it is important to go there.  Why?  For a number of reasons.  Because once you get it out on the page, it won't scare you anymore.  Because there's fabulous gold to be mined in the scary places (stories are nothing without conflict).  Because if you're not going there, you're probably not putting your true self on the page.

But how do you go there, when it's too scary?  Below, find some of my best tips for doing so.

1.  Cultivate uncertainty.  We all assume that we know with certainty what's going to happen tomorrow.  We'll get up, go to work, come home, have dinner.  But we don't really know that for sure. You might wake up sick and not go to work.  Or get out to the car and it doesn't start so you decide to take the day off.  Instead of clamping down on this (i.e., feeling you must exert control), learn to live in the knowledge that nothing is certain.

2. Make Friends With Discomfort.  When I flew to Paris by myself this summer, I was nervous. When last I was in France, the people were, um, there's no tactful way to say it…they were rude.  I don't speak the language, either (well, haltingly).  Finally, I realized I was afraid of my own discomfort.  I'm not rich, but I live a pretty cushy life compared to most of the world, and I reckon that most of you reading this can say the same thing.  We don't have to experience discomfort very often, and thus we protect ourselves from it.  So, instead of running from it, go towards it, especially in your writing.  (And by the way, I found the French people absolutely lovely this time around.)

3.  Free Write Lavishly.  Getting into that space where you are not really thinking but your hand is moving across the page is the best way to get into the scary places.  Once more with feeling, the way you free write is set a timer, begin with a prompt, and then have it–let your hand move across the page without stopping.  Did you get that last part?  Without stopping, even if you are writing one word over and over again.  It's this constant movement of the hand that accesses the deep parts of the unsconsious.  Oh, and don't worry about sticking to the subject of the prompt.  It is just there to get you started.

4.  Keep it Private.  Remember that just because you are writing the scary stuff down, it doesn't mean you have to share it with anyone.  Nobody has to read your journal entry, your halting attempts to write that scary scene, the episode of your memoir.  You might eventually get it polished enough and feel brave enough to share it, but that's in the future.  Right now, it's just you and the pen and the paper and neither one of them is going to talk.

5.  Trust the Process.  As a wise soul (maybe Emerson, but don't quote me on that) once said, "The only way out is through."  Yeah, it's true.  You've got to walk through the fire to get to the other side, and if you go around it, you don't get the same benefits.  You get to stay stuck and so does your writing.  And we don't want that, do we?  You will survive writing about the scary things.  Nobody has ever died from writing in private in their own little room.

So there you have it–my recommendations for getting to the scary places.  And here's that video (you can thank me when you wake up singing this song tomorrow):

How do you get yourself to write about the scary places?


Photo by I'm Fantastic, used under Creative Commons 2.5.

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11 Responses to How to Go Places That Scare You In Your Writing

  1. John Ross Barnes 10/24/2013 at 06:35 #

    When I was yet very young I recall being rather proud of myself for coming up with the the idea “Look for the path of least resistance, it works for electricity.” I know, dumbest idea, ever. Don’t get me wrong, it does work sometimes to get from one place to another. But I now realize how much better my life might be now, if I had never thought of that, never followed it.

    Thanks for this, Charlotte

  2. J.D. 10/24/2013 at 06:39 #

    There is a rumor that Emily Dickinson wrote like that, in private, presumably for someone to read after she was gone. I certainly have a lot of difficulty with “serious” writing right out there in front of everyone. First, I’m not sure what I have to say. Everyone wants to whine about the unfairness of life–no need to bore people with that. If I wish to write something profound, I must figure out what that will be. What do I have to say? When I was younger, I thought there were things I knew or at least I knew a question or two. Now … not so sure. Secondly, I don’t have the right voice. Salinger, McCuller, Harper Lee. They knew exactly what they were doing. I’m not gifted enough to create a voice; I’ll have to stumble upon it.

  3. J.D. 10/24/2013 at 06:41 #

    Interesting way to describe what has plagued many of us.

  4. Charlotte Dixon 10/24/2013 at 08:13 #

    I actually love that quote about electricity following the path of least resistance.  And, I'm quite good at following it myself!  I so often write about the things I'm working on in my own writing life.  I'm glad you enjoyed the post, thanks for stopping by.

  5. Charlotte Dixon 10/24/2013 at 08:15 #

    I've always had to stumble on my voice, and I really believe its how it works.  As for being serious–bosh.  Just because you're going to the scary places doesn't mean it has to be serious.  I write light, breezy fiction.  I can't help it, that's just what comes out!  How I would love to be Barbara Kingsolver or Alice Munro.  And, it's not going to happen.  But I still think that my light, breezy works have some depth to them–and I know for a fact that your wonderful mysteries do, too.

  6. Stacyverb 10/24/2013 at 11:10 #

    Food for thought. For 20 years or more, I kept a journal. There was plenty of deep, dark, ugly stuff in there. But for the past five years, most of my writing has been online, and I fear I’ve lost my ability to “go there” with the unpleasant stuff.

  7. Charlotte Dixon 10/24/2013 at 13:11 #

    I think its like riding a bike–a few days or weeks of writing in your journal and you'll be back to those deep, scary places in no time. Thanks for commenting!

  8. J.D. 10/25/2013 at 04:10 #

    Yeah, you don’t need to change. Emma Jean is great.

  9. Maryse 10/25/2013 at 07:48 #

    Not so long ago the mere act of writing was scary the hell out of me! I’m learning now to let the words come. Sometimes they take me to uncomfortable places (but there’s always healing there too) and sometimes it’s a joy ride. It’s definitely a question of trusting the process. Journaling and free writing are great tools. Thank you, Charlotte. ♥

  10. Charlotte Dixon 10/25/2013 at 09:29 #

    Thanks, J.D.!

  11. Charlotte Dixon 10/25/2013 at 09:30 #

    I agree that journaling and free writing are great tools. And I’m so happy for you that the words are flowing more easily–as evidenced with your poetry and your wonderful meditation site!

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